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Peter Such
UBUNTU: I am because of who we all are.
Supporting the 2012 Olympic Legacy—I WILL be positive and endeavour to maintain the Olympians' love of life and its challenges.
MALALA—a statement of the failure of religion: its failure to educate at all, especially men, to accept the absolute and unqualified equality of women
Great Berkhamsted
Hertfordshire England
Great Berkhamsted from New Road looking across Kitchener's Field

Saturday, September 7, 2013


BODY AND SPIRIT: An Ongoing Commentary

Musing on the Relevance of Religion and the Waking up of the Church of England
What another wonderful way to start the week. The Duchess of Cambridge in hospital for her first baby and a boy is born, assuring the supremacy of the House of Windsor for perhaps another century.
           It is definitely an uplifting moment, as I have come home from a most invigorating weekend. Not only was it a lovely family gathering, of one of several branches of a diverse range of cousins, but I was fortunate in being in fine fettle regarding my health.
           It was a wonderful celebration of my cousin’s retirement, following not only nearly forty years of ministry but also being for fourteen years the longest continuously serving resident minister in his present church.
           Being of the United Reformed Church, that longevity depends upon the congregation’s opinion, expressed through their deacons. In fact the question arose as to who was his congregation! People had travelled from Ghana to pay tribute to him—there is a reciprocal arrangement with a cathedral in Accra. His congregation included people from Methodism; Baptists; CofE; and even someone from Catholicism, their presence highlighting his church as the pivot for the full meaning of ecumenism in Sutton.
            He had reflected on Robinson’s Honest to God in this month’s parish magazine. Published fifty years ago, this book had strongly influenced his ministry prior to his training. Clearly, this is the bedrock of the philosophy that underlies, not only his ministry, but his pivotal role in a wider ecumenism, embracing many Sutton churches.
           Reading his reappraisal of Robinson’s book, he reminded me of my own, more peripheral excursions into philosophy, as a student and particularly reading Kirkegaard and Sartre, although with Sartre it was more his literature (in translation) than his philosophy for which I knew of him. Tillich had also influenced me with his book The Courage To Be, to which a friend had introduced me who herself, by adding a Divinity degree to her Harvard Management degree, became a minister.
            Martin’s reappraisal also made me realise that I was/am mostly an existentialist but had tended to forget this, as I dislike labels. Essentially, existentialism is a meaningless label. It is simply a statement that one accepts existence as it is and therefrom one may interrogate the essence. Essentially, it is the sweeping away of historical precedent, to think freely and newly originally, as was brought about for me by the CofE’s refusal to entertain women priests.
            It was this kerfuffle that caused me to lose all interest in religion generally. That I am vaguely back is because of a myriad of related social matters that are only peripherally related to God. I am an Englishman first, with a Protestant God being involved somewhere. In the mean time I have dabbled with a much wider philosophy, particularly the practicality of communication with Him and His Creation, from which has developed a certain amount of personal creativity; private prayer and intense solitude, enjoying, like Betjeman: buildings, not always churches (and I discovered Martin as much in love with St Pancras station as myself); talking with God, as freely when walking across Ashridge as at home; or formally in church.
            Martin introduced me to another aspect of his ministry, of which he is clearly a mainstay: the “Free To Believe” movement, effectively reminding us that at the centre of Christianity is the Christ described in the Gospels, around which so much dead wood has gathered pointlessly. Due to background ill health, I have not researched this literature as I would wish but I have found much empathy with what I have read.
             During my divertissement, I embraced the talents of friends, more psychically aware than myself. Through sittings with them and the occasional professional medium, with whom I have interchanged, most recently in London. Then, to my complete astonishment, since I would never have believed they would have entertained such a conversation in this life, both parents and my little sister came through easily, my father commenting that i had taken my time to make the effort. These experiences only confirm the assertions of my childhood: that I was before I decided to be born and will continue to be, long after that which appears to be me, is no longer a physical entity in this existence.
            I remember asserting this, with the great assurance that can only come from youth, when I was thirteen and experiencing my first encounter with the NHS’s sheer witlessness. Damn it, even undertakers measure their bodies before making coffins. At Hemel Hempstead hospital they didn’t even think to measure their patients before inserting them into a bed.
            Possibly, because I endeavoured to be helpful, it took them some time to realise that if my feet stuck out over the bed rail and my head end was in a semi-sitting-up position it was possible the bed was too short. I am not particularly tall even now but at that age my height had somewhat overtaken my years.
            Having pinched my sweets for the communal chest and refusing to give them back I was shunted up to the men’s ward, where I found a better communal spirit than the bunch of kids on whom I had earlier been dumped, although I felt it was more I who had had them dumped on me!
            It was an interesting introduction to the realities of life and death. While there, a chap was brought in who had had an accident on his motorbike. I have never liked motorbikes and perhaps this incident confirmed my aversion. He died the next day. Because a young boy was in the ward, there were elaborate precautions to put up screens so I would not notice the body being wheeled out. They crashed the trolley into the screens, knocking them down, thus drawing attention to the corpse. If they had simply got on with the job in a quiet and professionally competent manner, I probably would not have raised my head from the book I was reading.
            I heard my father’s voice in my head (he was overseas at the time), “If no one else is better qualified, have the self-confidence to take charge and lead from the front my boy!” That was the voice of a man who had risen through the ranks, from band boy to Major, Royal Military Police. I certainly left the hospital firmly convinced I was perfectly capable of running one!
            Another aspect was the deep, uninhibited emotion of the mother, learning of her son’s death. It certainly curbed any tendency in me to be reckless and to appreciate the preciousness and vulnerability of life. “In the midst of life we are in death.” It re-emphasised my predilection for the continuity of spirit, from where ever, through the body, to returning from whence it had come.
            Chatting with a chap who then seemed one foot in the grave but who actually, looking back, was probably younger than I am now, I told him I had a grumbling appendix and had been told to take it easy. What no one else regarded as important but which I regarded as a major trauma, I had just been cast in my first major theatrical production, to be performed in the Town Hall. It was therefore essential to get the operation over and done with, so it didn’t interfere with rehearsals and make the producer unsure of my reliability. I had therefore been specifically more energetic than usual.
            I remember telling him most emphatically, “My mind is the interpreter of my soul, my body the servant of my will: it’s purpose is to do that which I require of it. It is I who determines when my body will have an appendectomy not my body.”
            Apparently, this was relayed back to matron. Suddenly a consultant surgeon arrived who promptly rammed his gloved hand up my backside, the only way they could properly check things out in those days. I then had an interesting English lesson. While fiddling inside me he kept asking if he was hurting me. While not wishing to make a fuss but since I didn’t like what he was doing it would have been silly to have said “No”. Suddenly he changed tack. Does it hurt, or is it simply uncomfortable?” “Aah! An interesting use of language”, I replied. “It is uncomfortable, I do not like it but it doesn’t hurt at all, does that help?”
           Turning to matron as he withdrew his hand he said, “He can go home tomorrow morning.“ Fine, that got the rehearsal schedule back on track. I was again in charge and we were once more organised.
            I have no idea from where my inner conviction has come, except that it seems always to have been with me but it has never been something I have openly shared. My indisciplined reading has been more in line with Dawkins’ derisions and similar contests, from which experiences I have perversely gained greater conviction! Perhaps because at the root of my evidence is my direct experience. Subjective though that may be, there is a rationality that only the personally involved can objectively evaluate. The evidence is within oneself. “Seek and ye shall find”. I have, to my satisfaction, found, which is what enables me to take a more hard-headed view on life and apparent death.
           Preoccupied with the irrationality of an auto-immune condition, which has caused inflammation in both lungs, from which cancer has developed, I have a clear understanding that the body is nothing more than an encapsulation of biochemistry.
           The more one knows, the less one in fact understands. The miracle of life is that a great majority of people are perfectly normal and live full and uncomplicated healthy lives, despite there being so much that by sheer statistical chance can throw the whole thing completely out of kilter.
            It is this reason and rationality, lying behind so much of life, clearly pointing to a creative intent, that brings me back to the unreasoned, simply “sensed” affirmation of my youth: “That I was before I decided to be born; am now; and will continue to be, long after that which appears to be me is no more.”
            Perversely, I am grateful, not for my present condition but for the circumstances by which it was brought about, giving me time to prepare and reflect. Without waffling detail, I acquired a dog to help someone out. You can keep a German Shepherd in a flat, provided you walk him two or three miles two or three times a day. As this ties in with his meals and his natural habits, it gave me the need to ensure I exercised. Finding I did not have the energy to perform that exercise brought me to my doctor earlier than might have been the case. That started a long saga of investigation.
           For the dog, we found someone as loving of him as I was. For me, I had a specific warning to concentrate on what mattered, having first determined what mattered: still being determined, since to me all of life matters. My problem has always been that I am so easily diverted from one excitement to the next. Rather like the BBC journalist who blogged that on hearing she had cancer her attitude had been, "Oh! A new adventure in my life.” She is in her thirties and now in remission, whereas I have achieved my three score and ten and approaching that period when death is to be expected.
            Inevitably, a life review is required and is still in hand! I am at the stage of the early awakening of my self-consciousness, which immediately connects with the present. How did those early thoughts get disconnected? Thoughts when I was amusing myself on the allotment my grandfather so industriously managed.
           I would sit in the long grass, musing on the tranquillity; observing the insects; others working on their plots; the silence punctuated with bird calls, the chug of barges on the canal and the clunk of spades, or the clip of hoes. I would be part of that world and yet also in a world of my own thoughts. I was acquiring early, although at that time indefinable, that superb state of mind that is simply “being”, in which one acquires that sense of the collective whole of existence.
           I later discovered Eliot, expressing this brilliantly, but not until much later could I have hoped to understand him, as I do now and treasure his writing deeply. The quotation comes from his opening verse in the canto ‘Dry Salvages’ from Four Quartets.

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves I do not know.”
To know and yet not to know: that may indeed be knowing.
          In ‘Auguries of Innocence’ William Blake expressed it thus:
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
William Henry Davies was nearer my understanding at that age. His short poem ‘Leisure’ opens with:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.”
In those innocent days of naïve youth I thought of taking the cloth. It is as well I did not, for my understanding of a vicars’ role in those days was to maintain a model train track in the attic, for the scouts; partake of cream teas with old ladies on vicarage lawns, mown by willing parishioners; and spend the week writing one’s Sunday sermon. Such was the gentleness of my childhood and Church of England background, which included a school background that entailed a science master who did not believe in God, taking the cloth prior to is retirement, as it was the one job for which he could be paid while drawing his schoolmaster’s pension.
           A later applicant for the role of school chaplain asked if he could keep his pet goat on the grass quad, as he was rather fond of it and did not wish to leave it behind. It was later discovered that his bishop had specifically told him not to apply for the vacancy.
           It is for irrational reasons such as these experiences that give me a deeply fond attachment to the Church of England, while regarding most of the Old Testament irrelevant, preferring concentration on the central biography of Christ, in a modern interpretation.
           That I have evolved into modernism was highlighted by my United Reformed experience: a deep contrast from the high church predilection of Great Berkhamsted. My problem is language. Probably because of my love for Shakespeare, I appreciate the language of the King James’ Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
           In my feelings on this, I understand, but not with as much compassion as I should, the difficulty of moving forward. To question can be disruptive but to question is the only way forward and the example has been there for us from the beginning, in Doubting Thomas. How then, could the Christian church acquire its extraordinary sense of authoritarian arrogance when, at the very centre of its being, is the openly expressed doubt of the Resurrection? From doubt comes diversity. Through diversity comes the richness of certainty, strengthened by openness to doubt: hence my openness to the ‘Free to Believe’ movement of which my cousin is a pillar.
            Once my strong point, my command of English has deteriorated, not just through the pressure of modern colloquialism but previously, through working for a diversity of printing and publishing houses, each with their own house style and necessarily swapping between British and American English. I know I now need a competent editor. Never proof read your own work, you only see what you thought you wrote, not what you actually did write!
           I have never forgotten the poster on a wall of the school press, by one Beatrice Warde, another copy of which now hangs on one of my walls. Its main purpose is an example of good typography but the message, I drummed into myself as a boy for its own sake.
The “sacred ground” recalls that the first printing presses were under the control of the church and installed in side chapels.
            These were the days when the headmaster not only had his own butler but drove a Rolls Royce, although admittedly it was rather ancient.
            I next entertained the law but by that time I was ensconced in running the school press and felt industry more my bent, taking the compositor’s exam to see how a self-taught amateur could hold his own with a professionally taught apprentice. There were times on the shop floor when I valued that exam more than my management diploma and later degree!
            So, what started this muse, which is likely to be the first of many, as I review the various starts to the half-dozen books I have attempted to write through my life but the day job got in the way. Not that that stopped J K Rowling.
            Initially, I was intending to comment on my weekend away and share my respect and admiration for my cousin’s ministry. Then I heard the announcement of the Church of England’s re-emergence into the real world with its intention to bring sense and sensibility to the financial world and felt sufficiently uplifted as to post the following on my Facebook page.
            “Well, what a morning. One excitement disperses (Kate, William and George), plunging us back into everyday boredom when the mundane suddenly becomes exciting.
           Having gone through a phase when it confused Caesar with Christ, regarding the ethics of investments, the CofE decides to attack the common little money grubbers of finance by attempting to challenge Wonga on its own terms, at last bringing rational thinking into the world of finance. Well done.
            This is where the CofE and religions generally should be, in the reality of God's Creation as it actually is, not where too many churchmen think it is, or should be, locked in a 2,000 year old society, where man's understanding of man and his relationship with God was curbed, by the restrictions of the prevailing intellect and knowledge of that period.
            All Justin Wellby needs to do now to guarantee his appropriateness for his job, is to dissolve the church's damn fool glass ceiling that prevents women from being bishops. Four centuries ago a woman started it. Today, a woman is its supreme governor. To not have women bishops is simple damn fool stupidity. No religion can, or deserves to be, respected and taken seriously when it has such asinine hangups over women. It is completely irrational.”
            Hence, this muse, initially provoked by discovering this quotation. “The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. -Madame De Stael, writer (1766-1817)”.



The Indonesian Death Sentence on Lindsay Sandiford

What does life mean? Regardless of philosophy the distinction between life and death is obvious. Death is merely the mechanics of biology: the breaking down of compounds to their constituent parts—“dust to dust; ashes to ashes”: the basic compounds from which life derives.


Concepts of the origins of life: creation or evolution have never been in conflict but for the inability of many, inculcated into preset thoughts, to assimilate the fundamental reality that life is a continual state of change: both in fact of change and in mankind’s knowledge and ability to understand life. At the lowest levels life is controlled solely by the mechanics of biochemistry.
Higher up the evolutionary chain we still do not understand the biochemistry of the brain but we do understand, through reportage and scientific observation, the reality of mindthat organism of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.


Through reportage, at varying degrees of credulity, we understand the human mind can be receptive to a plane of existence beyond the physical norms of everyday living. This may have affinity, with that intangible quality of some species, to share a commonality of experience, in cohort with masses of others in their communities and also to feel affinity with other species. This sixth sense, the ability to be in contact with another plane of existence, most often referred to as “spiritual”, indicates a level of existence where inanimate bio-chemistry acquires a persona.


In many animals we recognise this as a collective. Insects, fish, birds and some animals act as units of a collective whole, while these species and other animals, up to mankind, act in varying degrees of individuality and social groups.


What has this to do with the death sentence passed on Lindsay Sandiford in Indonesia for drug trafficking? This: in recognising the affinity of mankind with another plane of existence, we recognise the continuity, in another state of existence, of the persona currently occupying a physical formation of bio-chemistry.


English law embraces the concept of a spiritual plane, or spiritual world, by the presence of CofE bishops in the Lords, who contribute to making our laws through arousing the consciousness of moral values. The existence of the CofE at all is a clear statement of society’s acceptance of that reality. That voices increasingly raise criticism of the concept is merely that present times embrace the expression of diverging opinions more freely than used to be the case but there have always been dissenters. The “fear of God” basis of most religions has never held absolute sway. Even in today’s Islam, where beheading and flogging still rule, believers still will not adhere to their society’s rules.


The interaction of the British government appears to be on the principle of supporting a British citizen abroad as far as it can. Established precedent. The fact that the UK has abolished the death sentence and corporal punishment is a sign of its progression away from the diktats of religious frenzy, whose failure to move its thinking forward, to accommodate newly acquired knowledge, has tempered mankind’s social, technological and spiritual development most disadvantageously.


Beyond that, the British government’s presumption in “interfering” in another country’s social statute raises questions I do not think it realises it is raising. Why should a British citizen not be treated as citizens of that country in which their crime has been committed are treated? That lack of equality is an affront to justice.


Then there is the question of the mechanics. Are we collectively happy the verdict is correct? It appears that those who know the detail are so satisfied. Is the sentence relevant to the crime? Yes, in that several foreigners have experienced it comparatively recently. It seems that those involved in this particular trial are of the opinion that it is not commensurate in this case. Could that be because their associated behaviour has implied a presumption of outcome, implying an undue influence upon the independence of the judges? Arguably, the judges have a duty to make their independence clear, especially if potential influence is perceived as coming from agents of another country. The judges, being wholly aware of the mechanism for appeal, may have passed sentence intending others to exercise their judicial opinion and making it clear Indonesia’s justice is independent?


Then there is the question of other than natural death, in the concept of the two planes of existence, which British and other law makers acknowledge: the physical plane here (with its limited time frame) and the spiritual, hidden now but actual, which assumes supremacy upon physical death, for eternity.


If, like the affinity of flocking birds, there is an all-embracing spirituality, that encompasses all of meaningful creation, we do not solve the problem of the errant spirit by despatching it early from this existence. We merely delay its progression and our dealing with it. Does despatching it early affect it more on the spirit plane than on the physical plane? On this plane it has a chance to redeem in this restricted duration. Where lies accountability for the future effects on the collective whole (but mostly on the spirit plane) to which we are all “finally” consigned? On the one hand we deny the wrongdoer time to prepare for the inevitable but on the other hand consign to the spirit plane what religion, in its days of power, consigned to God, which is much the same thing: can't deal with it now, sort it later.


At this moment of writing, I am inclined to repudiate validity to either death or corporal punishment as satisfactory sanctions, as a general answer. Especially since Christian religious views (my background) have been contradictory down the ages. In the specifics of this case, it is at the stage to allow reason and due process to proceed openly, without any indication of presumptuous external interference on Indonesia’s due process. In the mean time we have been given cause to review our positions, because leading on from here, which I will develop in due time, is the degree to which any country or countries should determine what is a universal social acceptance to which all should adhere?

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